Commonplace Book

I turn to my commonplace book. I’d like to do something with it now. That means analyze it--examine its central themes and truths. I am in a quandary.

My commonplace book consists of two volumes, each about 500-600 pages, with an additional set of unbound volumes for the last two years. It is the history of the notable passages I’ve marked and then copied from the books and essays I’ve read every year since 1980. There is an electronic version on my Mac and a printed version that would sink a ship.

It is a gold mine. Every time I turn to it, open a page at random, I am struck by the wisdom of the assembled collection. Here and there, I come across a sentence, a paragraph that suggests something more general.

How can these nuggets remain locked away in the volumes of an unknown, idiosyncratic reader of the late 20th and early 21st century? How to mine this wealth?

At first I think a statistical analysis would be the easiest. I soon realize that isn’t going to capture the meanings of the passages, some obvious but most second or third order concepts. Nor of their beauty.

I go through some pages and start my own analysis. It takes forever, although it is worth it. Perhaps I can find someone to help me, someone who knows a little about me and my reading proclivities. A volunteer appears. She starts, develops an interesting taxonomy, but soon gives up. It is too much for her. I am not surprised.

It is too much for the software. Too much for the volunteer. Will it do me in, as well? I start.

I begin with the pages for 2010. At once I am halted by two passages that hit home:

From the poet William Carlos Williams:
Whether we’re young, or we’re all grown up and just starting out, or we’re getting old, or getting so old there’s not much time left, we’re looking for company, and we’re looking for understanding: someone who reminds us that we’re not alone and someone who wonders out loud about things that happen in this life, the way we do when we’re walking or sitting or driving and thinking things over.

From Paul Auster’s Paris Review Interview:
Time begins slipping away, and simple arithmetic tells you there are more years behind you than ahead of you—many more. Your body starts breaking down, you have aches and pains that weren’t there before, and little by little the people you love begin to die. By the age of fifty, most of us are haunted by ghosts. They live inside us and we spend as much time talking to the dead as to the living. It’s hard for a young person to understand this. It’s not that a twenty year old doesn’t know he’s going to die, but it’s the loss of others that so profoundly affects an older person—and you can’t know what the accumulation of losses is going to do to you until you experience it yourself.

It continues like this, slowly. Occasionally I come across a book I don’t recall. I know I read it; the copied passages are evidence. But I cannot recall a single thing about its story or characters. This happens from time to time, even though my memory is fully operational. I go to find the book on the shelf. Of course, it isn’t there. This happens too often.

I continue and come across the passages from an article I do recall reading. It suggests a game, one for which there is no app. I call the game Counterfactuals.

One way to think about what a work of art does is to imagine the counterfactual—how would my life have been different had I not spent the last three months reading War and Peace? The answers, I think tend to group into three categories: The social experiences I had because of the book; the ideas the book incorporated into my life; and the aesthetic moments that were opened to me because of what I was reading.

I start playing the game with the book I just finished, The Spinoza Problem, by Irvin Yalom. Immediately a counterfactual comes to mind.

But I am distracted by all of this. What to do with these gems remains?


Anonymous said...

I just finished reading a sample of your Commonplace Book.
It was a pleasure to read.It has given me some fresh insights into reading.
Thank you .


Richard Katzev said...


Thank you. I reread the post you link to your comment and wonder if you have any ideas on how to organize the passages. I have come to the conclusion that it is an impossible task. I hope you disagree.


Anonymous said...

Imagine that all of your wonderful quotes and ideas are arranged, annotated, and organized into helpful categories...
Now what do you do? Do you read them page by page until you have completed this organizational feast?
Do you randomly choose page 364 and work your way through the remaining pages?
Do you start from the end of this tome and work your way slowly carefully to the first page?
Does it matter to you how they are organized or even IF they are organized?
To me, I would not care. I would sit down with this marvelous book, near an open window, with some hot chocolate and just dive in, anywhere, any page, any idea and just enjoy the recurring adventure.
Your thoughts?

Richard Katzev said...


Thank you for your thoughts and questions. I think it might be useful to organize the passages into categories. But I have no idea how to do that or if there ever will be. I know, for example, any single passage could easily be placed in more than one category.

Other than that, I like your idea, just "dive in" with cup of hot chocolate and enjoy the feast. I do that once in a while but never get very far. It is a perfect example of information overload.

One day in the not too distant future, I am going to leave them with the Stanford library. I was a student there as an undergraduate and the library has expressed interest. Maybe some day, a student will be able to make sense of them.


Anonymous said...

I like the idea of leaving them with the Stanford Library.I can understand their interest in such a delightful collection.
I wanted to tell you that I am also reading a sample of your book, The Observer, and I am really enjoying that.
Are you familiar with the works of Diane Ackerman? She has become one of my favorites.

Richard Katzev said...

Hi Sheila:

I'm pleased you like the idea of leaving the commonplace book with the Stanford Library. It was my home when I studied there, with a desk deep in the stacks all to myself.

I'm glad you are sampling The Observer. Yes, I am familiar with Ackerman and wrote a post about The Zookeeper's Wife here: http://marksinthemargin.blogspot.com/search/label/Diane%20Ackerman